Truth and Consequences
Truth and Consequences
America and Ukraine's Interests Are Not The Same

America and Ukraine's Interests Are Not The Same

The US can and should continue to support Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression. But there are limits to how far the US should be willing to go.

I’m Michael A. Cohen, and this is Truth and Consequences: A no-holds-barred look at the absurdities, hypocrisies, and surreality of American politics. If you received this email - or you are a free subscriber - and you’d like to subscribe: you can sign up below.

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I had a great conversation with John Sides about his new book about the 2020 election on Friday’s Zoom Chat, which I’ve posted above. This one is a bit shorter than my usual Zoom Chats, so it should make for easy but satisfying aural consumption. Enjoy!

When National Security Interests Diverge

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood | by Abhishek Sharma Gaur | Medium

I’m working on a longer piece about the situation in Ukraine and the growing and, I think, legitimate concern that Vladimir Putin might be contemplating the use of nuclear weapons. I hope to post it tomorrow. But, in the meantime, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the civil wars that broke out in Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s and the analogy to the conflict in Ukraine today.

I’m not going to revisit the entire breadth of the fighting in the former Yugoslavia, but suffice it to say, by 1995, the conflict was at a stalemate. The Bosnian Serbs held a broad swath of territory and encircled key Bosnian Muslim cities. The Croatian Serbs controlled about one-fifth of Croatia’s territory.

In August 1995, the Croatian Army (trained, in large part, with US support) launched a major military attack that routed the Croatian Serbs (and sent hundreds of thousands of ethnic Serbs fleeing for their lives). At the end of August, NATO began a bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb targets in response to an artillery attack on civilians at a marketplace in Sarajevo. Then, in September, a Bosnian Muslim military offensive ended the siege of the city of Bihac and sent the Bosnian Serbs reeling. By the end of the month, the Serbs were in retreat and on the defensive.

American diplomats pressured the Bosnian Muslims to end the military assault (which they believed they were winning) and come to the negotiating table. They did so out of the belief that further military gains would imperil the chances of a long-term diplomatic solution. As Dick Holbrooke noted in his book “To End A War” about the US shuttle diplomacy in the region, “the best time to hit a serve is when the ball is suspended in the air, neither rising for falling. We felt this equilibrium had arrived or was about to, on the battlefield.”

The Bosnians and Croats eventually gave in to US pressure and agreed to a cease-fire, which laid the groundwork for the Dayton Peace Accords. What’s important to understand here is that, ultimately, the US was on the side of the Croats and the Serbs, but Washington's larger goal was a diplomatic end to the conflict, which would forestall the possibility of a US military intervention in the conflict (i.e., boots on the ground), and ensure peace and stability in Europe (a long-term US national security goal).

The Yom Kippur War

A Star of David flag on the recaptured east bank of the Suez Canal on October 30, 1973, at the end of the Yom Kippur war. Photo: AP
Associated Press

The Yom Kippur War in 1973 provides a similar analogy. At the time, the US was a key backer of Israel, while the Soviet Union supported Egypt and Syria. When Egypt attacked Israeli lines on Yom Kippur, their troops were successfully able to cross the Suez Canal, establish a beachhead on the Sinai Peninsula, and bloody Israel’s vaunted military. In subsequent days and weeks, Israel mobilized its reserves and launched an audacious cross-canal attack that encircled the Egyptian Army and left the road to Cairo open to Israeli troops. One might imagine that since the US supported Israel in the conflict, it would have given Tel Aviv the green light to a) destroy the trapped Egyptian Army or even send troops to capture the Egyptian capital. But US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did the exact opposite. He put enormous pressure on Israel to stop its offensive and agree to a cease-fire. Why? Because he understood that an uncertain outcome to the war — in which both sides could realistically claim some modicum of victory — would lay the groundwork for a long-term diplomatic solution. And he was right! Five years later, the two mortal enemies signed a peace agreement. There’s also the fact that the Soviet Union was deeply concerned about the reversal of fortune for its Egyptian ally and was threatening to involve itself directly in the fighting, which could have led to superpower conflict. So Kissinger’s goal in preventing a decisive Israeli victory was two-fold.

I bring up these two examples because they are an essential reminder that the interests of the United States and its allies do not always converge. In Yugoslavia and the Yom Kippur War, the US pushed its allies to limit kinetic operations for fear that a significant military victory would a) imperil a potential diplomatic breakthrough and b) lead to a potentially dangerous escalation. As a result, the US applied pressure on its allies to get the military outcome Washington preferred. In both of these examples, America’s long-term national security interests crucially diverged from its allies.

More Of The Same In Ukraine?


We see a similar unfolding in Ukraine today. Quite clearly, Kyiv wants to push Russian troops off every inch of Ukrainian soil (and rightfully so). The US nominally supports that goal as well — but only up to a point. If Ukraine seizes back territory and routs the Russian military, it could lead Putin to significantly escalate the conflict, including the potential use of nuclear weapons. This would be a bad outcome for the United States … and even more so for Ukraine. But even putting aside the nuclear bogeyman, there is a clear US interest in this war ending sooner rather than later. Beyond the potential for escalation, a prolonged conflict creates significant costs for the United States and Europe. The US is currently spending tens of billions of dollars to support Ukraine and is slowly depleting its military stockpiles.

European countries are bearing the greatest economic brunt in the form of significantly higher gas and oil prices — which will have a more deleterious impact once winter arrives. The sooner the conflict ends, the better, even if Ukraine doesn’t satisfy all of its goals. The US only cares so much about Ukraine winning back all of the lands that Russia has seized up to this point. If there is, for example, a diplomatic solution to the war that ends the fighting but only restores 80 percent of Ukrainian territory, that’s an acceptable outcome for the United States and its European allies. Kyiv will likely not feel the same.

To be clear, this isn’t just a question of the US simply disregarding Ukrainian concerns and interests. The US can also help Kyiv better understand its strategic situation. For example, if American diplomats have reason to believe that European support for Kyiv will waver or a GOP takeover of Congress in November will lead to an end to arms shipments, then the US would be doing Ukraine a favor in making that clear to their ally. Washington might, in fact, have a better sense of what’s in Ukraine’s long-term interest than Kyiv does.

Now to be clear, we’re likely not yet at the point where Washington needs to have a road to Damascus conversation with Kyiv. Ukraine has made significant gains but is not necessarily close to defeating the Russian military. There’s no evidence that Putin is imminently preparing to use tactical nuclear weapons and American intelligence officials appear to believe that the possibility is still very low.

But that day could come. If the Ukrainians are on the cusp of routing Russian forces or recapturing territory, like Crimea, that represents a red line for Moscow, then the US may need to pressure Kyiv to stop its military offensive.

Moreover, if there are indications that Putin is receptive to a diplomatic solution or, conversely, is inching closer to the use of nuclear weapons, then the US has a responsibility to step in and deliver some tough love to its ally in Kyiv. Is the US truly helping Kyiv if it continues to support a military offensive that could lead to the potential use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine? Being a good ally to Ukraine also means telling Kyiv when it risks pushing too far and in a way that could backfire.

This is a difficult situation for US officials and one that involves a balancing of key interests. Aside from supporting Ukraine’s defense of its territory, the United States has a stake in seeing Russia, a key geopolitical rival, fundamentally weakened. The worse Russia does on the battlefield, the better it is for America. But, again, there are limits. The US is a hegemonic power with a strong preference for peace and stability. A weakened Russia is good. A chaotic, unpredictable Russia, habitually threatening its neighbors, causing trouble, and permanently outside the family of nations, is less good. A Russia humiliated on the battlefield and unable to walk away from the war without a minimal ability to claim victory is probably good for the region or the world and, thus, not in America’s long-term national security interest.

There’s, of course, only so much that the US can do to ensure that Russia remains relatively stable. Still, to the extent it can engineer a solution to the conflict that ends the fighting, satisfies Ukraine’s territorial and political interests, keeps the NATO alliance together, and punishes but doesn’t necessarily humiliate Russia is probably the ideal outcome.

Before you tell me that the United States can’t ever do business with someone like Vladimir Putin, I’ll quickly remind you that a critical interlocutor for the Dayton Peace Accords was Slobodan Milosevic, who ended up in The Hague (the Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman was no beauty either).

And to be clear, I’m not calling for the US to sell out Kyiv or pressure them as long as the situation on the battlefield remains fluid. On the contrary, the US should continue to support Kyiv, insofar as the two countries’ interests converge. We’re still, for the most part, at that point today. But it’s important to remember that Ukraine and America’s interests are ultimately not the same — and neither necessarily is our preferred outcome to the war. At some point, our interests will likely diverge. If that happens, the US may need to do what it’s largely avoided since the war began (but has done with countless allies for decades): pressuring Ukraine into concessions that Kyiv doesn’t want to make.

What’s Going On

Musical Interlude

There’s a very specific reason I’m posting this song today. Unfortunately, it’s just a bit much for me to explain why. Still, it’s a great tune.

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Truth and Consequences
Truth and Consequences
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